First day in Halong Bay
It is 12.30 and we've arrived at the Halong Bay dock having left our hotel at 08.00. A young Vietnamese man introduces himself as our guide for the next two days. "Hello. My name is Ha", he says. "Hi", says Monica. "No. Ha" he repeats, straight-faced. I'm sure he's played this routine before. It turns out his name means 'descending', as in Halong, the descending dragon. Different inflections of Ha give it four different meanings. It's all in how you say it. We learn later that Ha is a member of one of the Vietnamese ethnic minorities. He comes from the Central Highlands, and his family still lives there. His parents only speak the local dialect, never having learned Vietnamese. As the oldest son, Ha is responsible for them now. He dons my Panama hat for a photo and looks better in it than I ever did.
The journey down was long but uneventful. We travelled through a flat landscape of flooded rice fields populated with peasants in conical bamboo hats, and water buffalo pulling plows. Planting rice is back-breaking work, and yet I'm unreasonably upset when I see the occasional farm machine in the rice paddies. It disturbs the picture postcard view of the fields. I want the picturesque scene preserved in aspic. The Vietnamese have done things this way for many hundreds of years. The road is fronted for most of its length by more modern shops and houses. It's as if there is a single street linking Hanoi with Halong city. People sit outside their houses cooking, selling things, cutting hair, repairing machinery and watching the world go by. Children returning from school ride two to a bicycle, practising road skills to be used on scooters in future years.
We're apprehensive. It has rained all morning, a heavy drizzle which reduces visibility to about 100 metres. The hills are shrouded in mist. Will we see anything? All the publicity material for the bay shows azure seas, clear blue skies, and rocky escarpments covered in lush green foliage. Today, everything is grey. I should have read the small print in our guidebook "Winter is cool and dry - rain is possible at all times of the year". In the event our fears are allayed when the rain lightens and the mist clears. We sail through countless rocky islands rising sheer from the sea. The whole scene is unreal, reminiscent of the landscape of Guilin that we saw last year, but even more stunning. Our transport is a Vietnamese Junk, all polished hardwood with both sails and engine. It tows a smaller boat, used for ferrying passengers to and from the Junk.
Our companions for the trip are Thomas and Christina, Danish documenary film makers mixing business with pleasure; and a French trio: Pierre a resident of Hanoi, sister Anna and husband Olivier both from Paris. Monica questions Pierre and discovers he rides a motor bike in Hanoi. She's horrified. "Does your mother know?" All, except us have cameras with enormous lenses, and supporting paraphernalia. Thomas and Christine are professionals, Olivier has brought a tripod. Monica expresses dissatisfaction with her Box Brownie. She was happy until now. Everyone photographs the sea scenes, the Junk and each other. The Junk has its own chef who not only provides wonderful multi-course meals but carves ornamental birds out of radishes for decoration.
The boat stops at an island where there is an opportunity to swim, kayak and visit a cave high up in the rocks. Some mad Australians from anther boat swim. Most people opt for the kayaking after seeing the cave, erstwhile home of some local fishermen and their families. They have been relocated to the mainland. It must have been a hard life. We return to the luxury of our boat.
After dinner, the evening ends with an improptu sing-song. Thomas puts the Irish to shame with word-perfect renditions of 'It's a long way to Tipperary" - Monica, the Tipperary girl, can only remember the chorus; followed by Tom Leher's "Old irish Ballad" which neither of us knows. He then proceeds to sing French chansons with an accent that is clearly the envy of the French party. In vain do they muster a couple of popular French ballads in an attempt to restore national pride. But the damage is done. My rendition of "There was an auld woman from Wexford" fails to raise spirts when I forget the last two verses. Did I say drink was taken?